THE Communist Party of Kirghizia rules this Soviet republic from the marble fortress of the House of Soviets in Frunze's central square. But not 20 minutes drive away, the ugly Soviet apartment blocks disappear. In their place, Kirghiz sheepherders on horseback wearing peaked felt caps guide their flocks across the foothills of the jagged, snow-capped peaks.
Before the revolution, this city was called Pishpek, a tiny outpost of Russian and Ukrainian settlers at the edge of the empire in Inner Asia. They lived amid the nomadic Kirghiz, a Turkic people who have herded across the mighty Tian Shan mountains since at least the second millennium BC.
Although democratization and reform have swept the Soviet Union since 1985, change has come slowly to this Central Asian republic. The combination of Communist Party orthodoxy and deep-rooted culture has earned it the reputation as the most conservative corner of the country.
But perestroika (restructuring) has finally arrived in this mountainous land, personified by the surprising October election of Askar Akayev, a gentle 46-year-old Kirghiz physicist, to the presidency of the republic. Against all odds, and all expectations, he took the job from party leader and government boss Absamat Masaliyev, who had kept Kirghizia as the only republic not to join the wave of nationalism and sovereignty declarations.
``The democrats won over the conservatives,'' Mr. Akayev says simply, referring to the block of 114 democratic deputies which emerged, seemingly out of nowhere, to spearhead his victory.
Much of the credit for this goes to the fledgling Democratic Movement of Kirghizstan, which was born only this past year, on May 26. It is modeled on the ``popular fronts'' that have led nationalist revolts in many Soviet republics.
``We were influenced first of all by the Baltic republics, who started to resist the central totalitarian system,'' says Kazat Akhmatov, the writer and former Communist official who co-chairs the organization.
The movement has its origins in several small groups of activists who began organizing in 1988, Akhmatov explains. The May conference united 22 groups, the most important of which were Ashar, an organization of mostly young people demanding land to build housing; Asaba, a Frunze youth organization; and the Association of Young Historians.
The program set at the May meeting called for a struggle against party rule and the command economy, for complete economic and political sovereignty within a confederation, and for ``restoration of national language, history, and culture.''
Economic independence, in the view of many Kirghiz, means an end to being virtually a semicolonial dependency of Moscow. In neighboring Uzbekistan, that status means giving over most of agriculture to cotton, which is shipped out raw at fixed low prices. In Kirghizia, cotton, wool, and tobacco are produced, almost none of which is processed here.
``All Central Asian republics are now a source of raw materials,'' says economist and Deputy Premier Turar Koichuyevich, who heads the commission on economic reform.
Kirghizia, like other Central Asian republics, suffers from a combination of economic backwardness, high population growth, and a shortage of land. The population of 4,260,000 is growing by 100,000 a year, while only 5 to 6 percent of its land is arable, the rest consisting of mountains. According to the latest Soviet census figures, the republic is 52.3 percent Kirghiz, 21.5 percent Russian, 12.9 percent Uzbek, and the rest other nationalities.
These conditions led to the tragic clash between Kirghiz and Uzbeks in the Osh region, where the eastern end of the fertile Fergana Valley extends into Kirghizia. According to Deputy Interior Minister Valeri Balikin, some 250 people died in weeks of fighting from early June last year, which was triggered by the decision of the local Kirghiz party boss to take land from an Uzbek-populated collective farm and give it to homeless Kirghiz.
The Osh events led directly to the party's defeat in October, admits Medetkan Sherimkulov, the party leader just elected as new chairman of the republic's parliament. The population still blames the party leadership for the Osh bloodshed. Beginning on June 6, thousands of mostly young demonstrators besieged the party headquarters in Frunze, demanding the resignation of Mr. Masaliyev and the Osh party boss.
``We were on the brink of an armed clash,'' recalls democratic leader Akhmatov, averted only by the declaration of emergency rule.
But even after this, the party leadership did not get the message.
At the party congress later that month, only Akayev, then president of the Academy of Sciences, criticized the handling of the Osh events.
The Democratic Movement launched a campaign against Masaliyev, portraying him as a conservative out of touch with Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev's reforms. ``[Masaliyev] helped us a lot,'' says Akhmatov, by openly aligning himself at the Soviet Communist Party Congress in early July with the most right-wing elements of the party, opposing democratization and market reforms.
When the parliament convened in October for its second session since democratic elections, the democrats surprised the party leadership by announcing that almost a third of the members had aligned themselves in a democratic bloc. The heterogeneous group includes hard-core followers of the Democratic Movement and party opponents of Masaliyev, as well as 30 Russian-speaking deputies who, although not supporting nationalist ideas, support democratization.
At the same time, the movement launched a mass hunger strike. The parliament building was surrounded by demonstrators who covered its walls with verses and jokes against Masaliyev. Inside the building, they outmaneuvered the overconfident Masaliyev, who had agreed to the creation of a new presidential system, with the president elected by the parliament. The democrats threw a wrench into the works by nominating two other party leaders, cleverly exploiting deep regional differences between north and south Kirghiz. Masaliyev failed to get a majority and under the election rules could not run again.
Late at night, the democrats contacted Akayev in Moscow, where he sat in the Soviet parliament, and urged him to run in a second round. He rushed back and faced 11 other candidates, narrowly triumphing in a runoff vote.
``As his first act, he immediately went out to meet the hunger strikers,'' Akhmatov says. ``And they welcomed him with affection.''
Since then, the scientist turned politician has moved carefully, pushing reform as far as the still-powerful but shaken party apparatus will allow it. On Dec. 12, the parliament finally passed a sovereignty declaration, dropping the words ``Soviet'' and ``socialist'' from its formal name. Land reform, including privatization of the sheep herds, is on its way, with party acquiescence.
Masaliyev yielded his post as head of parliament and the word among political observers here is that his days as party leader are also numbered. Sitting on the top floor of the House of Soviets, overlooking the ever-present bust of Vladimir Lenin, his outstretched arm pointing to some unseen goal, party heir apparent Sherimkulov chooses his words with care.
``We have to get used to living under a multiparty system and with pluralism of opinion.''
First in a three-part series.